What Can Madison Learn From Seattle? Q&A With the New Head of WARF

The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation announced on Wednesday that it had selected Erik Iverson as its new managing director.

WARF, which manages patents and licensing for the University of Wisconsin-Madison—the state’s largest academic research institution—has since 2000 been led by Carl Gulbrandsen, who will be retiring on June 30 (Iverson’s official start date is July 1).

Iverson, 47, is an attorney whose career stops include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He is currently president of business and operations for the Seattle-based Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI), a nonprofit that helps lead a variety of global health-related research and development projects.

Earlier this week, Xconomy caught up with Iverson to talk about WARF, some of his hopes and expectations around the new job, and what similarities he sees between Seattle and Madison. The following interview had been condensed and edited for clarity.

Xconomy: Was it WARF who contacted you regarding your interest in the managing director position? What was your initial reaction?

Erik Iverson: [WARF’s] search team reached out to me quite a while ago. The opportunity to even enter into the discussions about a possible opportunity and interview process was truly exciting. This is the only opportunity I’ve explored while here at IDRI.

X: How are you preparing for your official start date in July?

EI: I have a lot of education to do, which can only just begin before I get [to Madison]. And then once I’m there, there will be a whole lot of education and understanding and exploring what WARF and the whole landscape of the community and the state is all about.

X: Do you expect that at WARF, your role will have things in common with your current position at IDRI (in terms of overseeing a sizable organization) or, before that, at the Gates Foundation (in terms of managing intellectual property)?

EI: I think all of the above. WARF is a well-renowned, highly respected organization that has a rich history. What I hope to do is to bring complementary experiences and complementary expertise to what already exists, and then work with the team to better understand what its current strengths are, and perhaps where there’s opportunities to grow.

X: How closely will you be involved with cases, patent management, and day-to-day operations?

EI: I don’t know the answer until I meet the team. But they’re highly competent—I don’t expect to get into the weeds. My job will be oversight, and relying on and trusting the team to manage its portfolio activities and their own roles and responsibilities.

X: Before joining the Gates Foundation, you worked in private practice at the law firm Perkins Coie LLP. Is there a part of you that misses spending a lot of your time on cases and really being able to dig into the details?

EI: I still do that, to some degree, because I’m intellectually curious and I have a fair bit of experience. But again, that’s only to the extent that somebody who’s really responsible for the case asks me to do so, and opine on it or support them otherwise. I’m definitely not a micromanager—I have to rely on the team to do its job. And quite frankly, they’ll be smarter than me in those areas anyway.

X: What do you think the $234 million a judge ordered Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) to pay WARF last year, as part of a patent infringement lawsuit, says about the foundation?

EI: The UW-Madison is a world leader in technology. WARF takes the intellectual property and the inventions that come out of the great scientists of UW-Madison very seriously, which is important for the integrity and well-being of the scientists and the university.

X: How do you think Seattle’s life sciences sector compares to Madison’s?

EI: Seattle is or has been historically a top-five biotech hub in the country. I believe Madison could get there. Seattle is historically a very small city, and has grown into this, largely because of the University of Washington’s technologies. I believe that Madison holds great promise in becoming a real technology center, by leveraging the business communities of Milwaukee, Madison, and surrounding cities and states, from Chicago to Minneapolis and elsewhere.

X: What about Seattle and Madison’s software industries, and the startup communities they’ve helped to produce? Do you see any similarities there?

EI: Again, from a biotech perspective, Seattle is one of the top five hubs. But as an IT, computer and Internet technology base, it’s a leader. I was here in Seattle during the 1990s. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) was already really well-established, but I [witnessed] all of the spinouts and wealth that was created, and innovation.

It takes the combination of a great research institution, like UW-Madison, working in conjunction with a growing business community with some core tenants, such as Epic Systems, and working with the government and the legislature to create the necessary engines and ecosystems to build a strong technology community that benefits the entire state, if not the nation as a whole.

The ingredients for the recipe are there. Now, it’s getting to know the community, WARF, the university, the citizens of Wisconsin, and getting to know the legislature [in order] to build those ingredients into a true recipe, and then baking it into something great.

X: How familiar are you with the state budget cuts that UW-Madison and other schools in the UW system are currently dealing with? What can WARF do to help the university overcome some of these challenges?

EI: I don’t know enough about those constraints to speak to them. I really need to get into WARF, and I need to speak with all the people associated with WARF and its operations. [I need to get a] better understanding of the constraints that the legislature or the government in general has to grapple with, what’s important to the state, and most importantly, what’s important to the university. But I just simply don’t know enough yet to be able to respond to that intelligently, so I’m going to take some time to get to know things better.

X: When you hear the letters “UW” now, is it going to be hard to not automatically think of the University of Washington?

EI: When I hear it, I now immediately see red. I wore a University of Wisconsin baseball cap the other day and my son looked at it and said, ‘Hey, that’s a different W!’ It is a funny thing, but it’ll be alright.

Jeff Buchanan is the editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email: jbuchanan@xconomy.com Follow @_jeffbuchanan

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